Snakes, Ladders and Tables

essay / Chloe Geoghegan

Written for the Laurel Projects iteration of Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa, ‘Snakes, Ladders and Tables’ by Chloe Geoghegan responds to the project through an (ironic) reading of Sheryl Sandberg’s controversial part feminist manifesto, part self-help and part biography Lean In. 


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(What I learned from ironically reading Lean In)

[To “lean in” is to actively accept challenges and seek more responsibility, especially in order to progress in your career]

I have been aware of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘feminist manifesto’ titled Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead since it was published in 2013. Who could have ignored the furore Sandberg caused online — the sheer audacity of this wealthy, successful Silicon Valley executive, to tell the rest of us that we aren’t doing enough to take a seat at ‘the table’.

I didn’t think much more of Sandberg until last month when I read Holly Walker’s 2017 BWB Text The Whole Intimate Mess, Motherhood, Politics, and Women’s Writing. At the end of Walker’s novella about her own table anxieties, she included a long and brilliant list of books by women writers she had found solace in, after giving up a career in politics as a young first-time mother who had tried and failed at ‘doing it all’. 

The only book on the list that Walker recommends not reading is Lean In, so naturally, I was curious. There’s something so tempting about reading a book that literally no one in the world recommends. Walker had found Sandberg’s biography laughable and irreverent to her life, even though it is sold as what should have been a beacon in the fog surrounding new motherhood during her painfully short maternity leave before returning to parliament. Sandberg’s career has been focused on climbing the corporate ladder into the ‘c-suite’; Walker was a newly elected Green Party MP climbing her own ladder through government. How interesting that Lean In was anything but inspiring for Walker, who felt as though she had leaned in so far, she had fallen over trying to make it all work.

Walker’s argument against leaning in was that Sandberg’s reality was full of power and privilege, whereas many women* trying to juggle a career and family do not have control over the many mitigating factors** that can easily turn a delicately balanced situation into chaos. Coming at Lean In with Walker’s reaction in mind, I wanted to see what I thought of it, being in a similar situation to Walker, with a toddler and a job. Was I going to vomit all over my copy and then throw it in a dumpster fire like the rest of the world has already done? Or at least, drop it straight back to the dump shop where I found it?

While reading, I found that Lean In is not as much about how to balance parenting and a career, but how women face so much adversity when it comes to getting ahead in the work place. Full of statistics from this study and that report, it’s a hard read for anyone looking for some kind of well-written, meaningful, more complex narrative about leaning in. Every chapter is straight-forward with no twists or turns, always concluding with the same call to put your hand up more often and not to accept that first pay offer that comes your way in a negotiation for a new job or promotion. Sandberg also points out that men still run  the world (say, what!), and she thinks the revolution has stalled (of which she can be forgiven for thinking whilst writing in a  pre-#metoo world).

Expectations-wise, I didn’t feel as flabbergasted by these ‘battle cries’ as I thought, probably because don’t really see myself as a big leaner. My attempt to lean in would probably end up similar to Walker’s, so I just tend to stay stationary for fear of my own demise. Therefore, my approach to ‘having it all’ is constantly experimental, exploratory and sceptical. Whether I’m a mother or a working-mother or just a person, the grass is always greener and always a reassuringly temporal construct. I am constantly dropping into one and out of the other, sometimes it all works, sometimes it doesn’t. Perhaps like a true Millennial, the Global Financial Crisis destroyed the ladders I should have climbed, and thus my table has more often been my own lap, or my bed, or an aeroplane tray table. The sheer idea of being invited to sit at a table or climb a ladder belongs in the dreams of a Gen-Xer, who values furnishings more so than I could ever. This reaction also reveals a lot about my own personality: no addictive qualities, a short attention span and an interest in curating that comes with being a Jack of all trades and a master of none. 

Unable to feel too cut by Sandberg’s provocation that it is a woman’s internal obstacles that holds her back the most, attempting to read Lean In offered an opportunity to reflect on how easy it is to turn away from another woman’s advice on a subject that I am only just starting to scratch the surface of. How often do I, as a woman, a mother and a co-worker turn away from a fellow woman, mother or co-worker because I find their delivery poor or their approach annoying? How can I learn from Sheryl, another woman, mother and co-worker trying to make space for an important conversation, who has put herself out there for the world to judge, who isn’t a man telling me how things are, and who is trying to advance the cause the only way she knows how?

I think if I ran into Sheryl Sandberg on the street (even though I won’t because she probably has her own driver seeing as her net worth is US$500 million), I would thank her for highlighting a study that revealed that men are typically promoted based on potential, women are only able to advance based on their past accomplishments. Then I would admit to her that I never finished Lean In because it wasn’t really for me, but that I did learn a lot about how I want to contribute to this conversation going forward. Ironically, reading Lean In has taught me that almost everyone in the world today really does want to make it better, and we have to figure out how to support those of us who are putting themselves out there to make this happen.

When thinking about the way this exhibition “Present Tense: Wāhine Toi Aotearoa” was constructed, it’s all about listening, working together and finding common ground. The facilitators and contributors aren’t leaning in or leaning out or not at all, they are leaning on one another to advance the cause for all of us in Aotearoa.

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* I have used the term ‘woman’ for selfish convenience in this essay. I invite all readers to replace this term with whatever fits their experience, identity or situation.

** While I focus on motherhood as the main mitigating factor in this text, other factors are but not limited to: race, class, sexuality, socio-economics, family circumstances, mental health and relationships.

Chloe Geoghegan / independent curator; past-Director of Blue Oyster Art Project Space; co-founder of Dog Park artist-run space

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essay / Disappointing the past and failing the future / Emma Ng, October 2019

curatorial text / From Protest to Present / Sophie Davis, October 2019

essay / Towards A Wider Understanding of Design / Michelle Wang, October 2019

essay / Te Marama / The Moon / Elle Loui August, September 2019

interview / Painting the town red / Jeremy Hansen, September 2019

essay / Mauri — an opportunity to connect / Desna Whaanga-Schollum, August 2019

artist text / On being present… / Mere Taylor-Tuiloma, August 2019

essay / Snakes, Ladders and Tables / Chloe Geoghegan, July 2019

curatorial text / No longer the exception / Lucy Wardle, August 2019

essay / Broken record / Lana Lopesi, April 2019

curatorial text / This present future / Wendy Richdale, April 2019

radio / Erin Broughton & Catherine Griffiths / Yujin Shin, August 2019

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return to Present Tense : Wāhine Toi Aotearoa